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Building India into a powerhouse in maths

Despite its rich legacy and size, India doesn’t fare well on global benchmarks of maths. Here’s a road map on how to do it

Mathematics is the foundation of modern science and technology, and its role in critical areas of national security such as cryptography is even more singular. However, despite a rich historical legacy (Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta and Bhaskara, for instance) as well as renowned mathematicians in the 20th century (such as S Ramanujan, SN Bose, PC reagents Mahanobis and CR Rao), India has fared less well in this critical field in recent years.

Despite a rich historical legacy and renowned mathematicians in the 20th century (such as S Ramanujan, SN Bose, PC Mahalanobis and CR Rao), India has fared less well in this critical field in recent years(Wikimedia Commons)

A recent study evaluated the contributions of top mathematicians based on the Discipline H-index or D-index, which tracks each scientist’s published scholarly papers and citations in their specific discipline.

Among the top 50 mathematicians, only one is of Indian origin; among the top 100, four are of Indian origin. Among the top 500, 15 are of Indian origin, but just one is based in India. Among the top 2,332 mathematicians, just 17 are based in India (less than 1%).

India ranks 19th, lower than tiny countries such as Israel, Austria and Belgium. While there have been two Indian-origin winners of the Fields medal (the Nobel Prize of mathematics) – Akshay Venkatesh and Manjul Bhargava – their parents had emigrated to Australia and Canada, respectively. And while institutions such as the Chennai Institute of Mathematics, Indian Institute of Science, Indian Statistical Institute and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, have excellent mathematicians, the pool is thin.

Given India’s size, this is deeply dismaying. There are two reasons why India should be doing much better in mathematics. First, among all Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, the last one is the least capital-intensive. There is relatively less need for capital investments in labs and equipment, which need to be constantly upgraded. Mathematics also does not require large running costs of elaborate support infrastructure such as lab technicians or costly reagents.

Furthermore, if STEM is a ladder of social mobility, mathematics is even more so. Merit is rarely unambiguous, since the nature of standards and the referees that enforce them markedly shape its perception. But some fields of human endeavour have more unambiguous markers of merit.

In mathematics (along with sports, chess, and music), quality cannot be easily gamed. The language of maths is universal — and the standards of merit are unambiguous. The great Indian mathematician, Ramanujan, became a byword in number theory and pure mathematics despite his poverty, weak English language abilities, and being a fish out of water amidst the dons of Cambridge University.

India has failed to produce another Ramanujan despite the language of mathematics being universal (and, hence, English language proficiency mattering much less), a population that has grown five-fold, and is much more educated (at least as measured by the percentage of population finishing high school). This speaks volumes about India’s education system. Indeed, the current system of education is expressly designed to polish the stones and dim the diamonds.

Brilliant mathematicians are well likely to perform weakly or even fail in some subjects that don’t interest them. But India’s education prefers well-rounded mediocrity to narrow brilliance.

One of India’s biggest security challenges going forward will be cybersecurity and at the heart of it will be cryptography, for which the country needs hundreds of young talents in pure mathematics. Currently, key national security agencies such as the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) face serious human capital challenges (the largest employer of mathematicians in the US is the National Security Agency or NSA).

But the security challenge for India is much greater. Like all armies, the Indian armed forces are well prepared for the last war. This may matter less under conditions of slow technological change. But when technological change is rapid – and even more when it occurs at the breakneck speed as is the case today – the structures and personnel need a serious rethink.

To take an example, the US set up a new Army Futures Command (AFC) in 2018 (with about 20,000 personnel) to develop the technologies and concepts that will enable its armed forces to stay abreast of the sheer range and speed of unprecedented disruptive technologies that are impacting warfare. AFC is charged with leveraging developments in areas such as robotics, quantum computing, hypersonics, directed energy and Artificial Intelligence pioneered by the private sector. The key personnel are PhDs, who work, unlike the army’s usual hierarchical ethos. Knowledge and expertise, not rank and polish, matter. Breaking from the insularity that characterises militaries, it deliberately listens to a range of external civilian advisers, regularly convening meetings with technology experts.

AFC includes coders selected on their coding ability, not rank or academic degree. They not only develop software solutions for the army but regularly deploy with army units around the world to solve their problems on the spot. This matters because of the speed of adaptation to new technologies, everything from drones to electronic warfare to air defences. One example: The US High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which initially worked wonders for the Ukrainian army last summer, has seen its effectiveness severely diminished by the Russians jamming its GPS signals. The Ukrainians now have to develop countermeasures to the Russians’ countermeasures, which require serious cyber and cryptography capabilities.

India will have to do something similar. It cannot compete with China on hardware. But it does have the possibility of harnessing its human capital to both shields itself and disrupt its stronger rival. To do so, it must first develop human capital whose foundations lie in mathematics.

It is therefore imperative that India build its capabilities in mathematics. Looking forward, this will be a much-needed skill. It will also be an essential component in operationalising and deepening the India-US high-tech partnership that was unveiled during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit. The markers of merit in maths are unambiguous, and systems need to be created to nurture raw talent whose English accents may be poor and who have little social capital.

One pathway would be to build mathematics camps and Olympiads in districts and cities, and then at the state and national level. Annual maths Olympiads would help select the most promising talent who will be fully funded – either by the government or corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds from the private sector – wherever they choose to study, but conditional on their serving for a few years in an area of national priority subsequently. India needs to urgently bolster its capabilities in mathematics to amplify the opportunities for its young population and thereby meet its potential in the world of deep tech that will define the future.

By Devesh Kapur

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